Americorps – idealistic


The siren’s call arises from time to time for ‘national service’.   The original program was called VISTA in the mid-60s, now part of Americorps.  I was one of the first volunteers.  Here’s what it was like for me:
VISTA urged me to join, saying my background would be good for working with migrant farm laborers. (It wasn’t, but they were looking for people.) Volunteers were flown across the country for ‘intensive’ training. Some were immature, snide, and anti-establishment. They played their stereos loud when nuns in the dorm where we stayed were trying to rest. One named a dog ‘migrant.’ Others earned us a bad reputation downtown. (If they didn’t fit in their own culture, why send them to another?)

We were asked by outsiders what our training was about and found it hard to answer. When we asked our trainers what we were to do when we got to our assignments, we were told, ‘You’ll find out when you get there.’ When we got ‘there’ and asked our sponsors, they said, ‘We don’t know; what were you trained to do?’ (while telling the papers we were receiving ‘in-service, on-going orientation.’)

Only a few volunteers were assigned to migrant farm labor. I heard some partied all the time and were fired. Not surprising.

My job was ‘community development’, which was made to sound exotic, but was simply working on any feasible project to promote self-help. One project was very successful and the rest of the year was unimpressive.

College degrees were irrelevant. The work wasn’t ‘technical;’ it was frustrating and disillusioning. I wasn’t surpri­sed to hear that some volunteers accomplished nothing in their year. [No problem – results were never measured.] I can’t imagine any sensible volunteer becoming ‘radicalized’, as claimed by one article. 

We worked with ‘the poor’, who were poor in money and rich in everything else – family life, friendships, and a robust, close to nature, lifestyle.  They had fewer hang ups than many of the volunteers.

The program was an idealistic, feel-good, children’s crusade.  If it and 75 similar programs were studied by realists, it would probably be clear that VISTA, Americorps, etc are impractical and expensive; and that people who want to volunteer would be better off doing so for established, local social agencies with proven track records.